North Korea

Chinese navy keeps firm focus on northern shores as North Korean tensions rise

Yellow and Bohai seas remain the centre of naval drills in the last two years but China also working to project power around the globe

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 10:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 11:13pm

China’s navy has remained firmly focused on protecting its northern shores in the last two years – shifting its attention only briefly at the height of tensions in the South China Sea.

But military observers said the People’s Liberation Army Navy was also conducting more drills further afield to raise its international profile and extend its reach.

Since the start of 2015, the navy has carried out most of its reported drills in the Bohai and Yellow seas off North Korea and Japan.

It shifted focus to the South China Sea last year after a Hague tribunal ruled against China’s territorial claims in the area in July 2016.

But as the crisis on the Korean peninsula came to a simmer late last year, the Chinese navy looked north again and centred exercises in the Yellow Sea.

Since late July, it has carried out several known sets of drills in the Yellow Sea. The first was a three-day exercise marking the 90th anniversary of the PLA’s founding. A second, four-day, drill was conducted a week later after Pyongyang’s second intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 28. Land and air force personnel also carried out exercises near the area, including one on Tuesday simulating a missile attack.

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The navy conducted at least seven exercises in the Bohai and Yellow seas in 2015, according to Chinese media reports, which may only partially reflect military activities.

Shanghai-based military analyst Ni Lexiong said the exercises in the Bohai and Yellow seas were meant to safeguard the country’s political centre.

“[Beijing] is now under growing threat from the Korean peninsula, so the Chinese navy must demonstrate and improve its defence and combat abilities,” Ni said.

“The exercises are also messages to the United States that Beijing does not want to see a war near China’s coast.”

Collin Koh, a maritime security expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the Chinese military was also responding to shows of force by the US Navy and its allies off the peninsula in recent months, especially those by US carrier strike groups.

Koh and Ni both said the PLA Navy was gradually sailing further afield, including a six-month trip this year to more than 20 countries involved in Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Koh said the three factors were driving the offshore push.

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“One is to protect China’s overseas interests, especially ... those related to energy security and trade in the Middle East and Africa,” he said.

“[Another reason] is to generally project force as a way to promote China’s stature as a global maritime power; and the third is to contribute more public common goods in its more active role as a global security actor.”

But Beijing-based military observer Zhou Chenming said analysts should not read too much into some of the naval exercises.

“Some exercises were set to train personnel rather than send a specific message to other countries, and many factors, such as tides and maritime conditions, were considered before deciding on a final location,,” Zhou said.